A break from the norm

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I felt kind of guilty that I hadn’t hurried to catch up with Francis Ford Coppola’s YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH and TETRO when they were new. I kind of bailed on him after Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and saw no reason to bother with JACK or THE RAINMAKER. Uncle Francis was going to get paid whether I saw them or not, so they’d served their purpose. But I intended to give him another chance when he came back with more personal films, I just… never got around to it.

But now I’ve seen TWIXT and am right puzzled. Written by FFC himself, and proudly bearing the American Zoetrope logo, it seems like a personal project. And indeed it incorporates a tragic incident from Coppola’s life, the death of his son in a boating accident (here rendered as the death of a daughter because, as Poe says here, that makes it more poetical). But what it is, is a hoaky, creaky, incoherent gothic fantasy that plays like cut scenes from a video game and feels like it was written by an eight-year-old. Now, that may sound like a knock. In fact, even as it suffers from all these problems, it has some of the dopey charm of cut scenes and children’s writing: naivety can be attractive.

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The thing starts with considerable assurance: a spooky Tom Waits voice-over will kick anything off nicely. And the images of the small town are very atmospheric without, for the most part, pushing it: visually, the film is often splendid, with digitally manipulated night scenes that evoke Bava and Freda. As the movie goes on, the stuff set in “reality” becomes more and more laughably unconvincing, but the fantastical stuff has a bit of Lynchian weirdness and, although nothing in the movie makes proper sense, there are bits that seem to link up in an irrational, dreamlike way.

It feels harsh to criticise Coppola for using a personal tragedy in his story — after all, it’s his personal tragedy. He should be free to use it if he wants to. But it felt unresolved, unconnected, and curiously unfelt — maybe because we first see a photo of the dead child right after Kilmer’s done a Brando impersonation in a (quite funny) improv writer’s block bit.

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The acting is all over the shop. Val Kilmer works hard to anchor it. It’s lovely to see his ex-wife, Joanne Whalley, here playing his current wife — but she doesn’t convince in her bitchier moments. She’s just too nice. Then there’s Bruce Dern as Sheriff Bob LaGrange, who Coppola clearly believes can do no wrong. I saw Dern in Telluride talk to Leonard Maltin about his work in NEBRASKA, and giving a pared-down performance without any of his trademark “Dernsies.” Well, I think all the Dernsies ended up in this film. It’s a performance made entirely of Dernsies. Waste not, want not. I love Bruce Dern, he is an international treasure. But when he gives his name as “BOB LaGrrrraaaange!!!” he probably could have benefited from some direction. Who gets that excited about their own name? I think you can see similar stuff going on with Anthony Hopkins in DRAC, he keeps getting more ridiculous, waiting for the moment when his director will say, “Okay, maybe that was a little too much…” but the moment never comes.

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Oh, we also get Alden Ehrenreich, a Coppola discovery. He plays a ridiculous, Baudelaire-quoting vampire goth biker called Flamingo, and is as good as anyone could be under such circs. Ben Chaplin plays Edgar Allen Poe with an English accent, an odd/lazy choice. But he looks the part. Handsome yet still strongly Poe-like. And I always feel a burst of enthusiasm from somewhere or other when this guy shows up, a bit like with Rufus Sewell, you know? A Rufus Sewell kind of a feeling.

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I’m told, and it may not be true, that when Coppola screened DEMENTIA 13, his first attempt at the Gothic, for his producer, Roger Corman, a man not given to loud displays of emotion, Corman snapped a pencil. Which would be like a bomb going off, from Corman. So he got Jack Hill to rescue it. My own pencil-snapping moment came right at the end of this one, when it became clear that nothing was going to wrap up satisfactorily, that Coppola didn’t have a clue how to end the story, that he’d been making it up as he went along and filmed a first draft. And let’s be clear — it’s OK to end a movie with text on the screen saying what happened to the characters IF THEY’RE REAL. Or if you’re being funny. Coppola is clearly being funny some of the time here, but he doesn’t seem to have made a clear decision about when.

 

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13 Responses to “A break from the norm”

  1. Don’t know about this, but I will attest to being very enthusiastic about THE RAINMAKER (JACK is icky). Everyone in it is good, even the usually unbearable (for me) Claire Danes, and has Coppola’s considerable gift for comedy on admirable display.

  2. Big fan of You’re a Big Boy Now so I’m with you on the comedy front. Can’t agree with you on Danes, I think she’s a natural. Naturals don’t appeal to everybody, by their nature, I guess.

    I think I looked at the ads and thought “Grisham, how good can it be?” (A man who sets up tense dramatic problems and then just walks away from them at the end.) And no director had managed to make a Gresham film feel personal… Maybe I’ll give it a try.

  3. CLaire Danes was an unalloyed joy in “My So-Called Life” — everyone’s favorite cult TV series. Jared Leto was great in that too. Now he’s well-nigh intolerable (He’s next cast to play Andrew Warhola, an obscure 60’s art character you may have heard of — YIKES!)

    I am not at all sure if “Twixt” was ever given a proper U.S. release. Once the most famous director in the world, Francis is now struggling to find Edgar G. Ulmer level footing.

  4. I know he’s chosen to pursue modest distribution schemes to avoid creating unrealistic expectations and to target his films very specifically. Which may show he’s been too far ahead of the curve for his own good AGAIN. With Netflicks etc, a movie like Twixt could have a chance.

  5. John Seal Says:

    My report on TETRO, so you don’t have to: beautifully made. Well acted. Completely absurd and unbelievable. The End.

  6. I’ve always thought “The Godfather” was rather bland and “Godfather II’ excellent (the less said about 3 the better) “Apocalypse Now” is intermittently interesting, but bloated and politically incoherent. Francis seems to want to criticize the war but has no understanding of Why We Invaded Viet Nam. See Fuller’s “China Gate” and Both versions of “The Quiet American” instead (the Noyce being preferable despite Mank’s smooth mise en scene, much admired by Godard. The entire murderous escapade is captured in the annoyed petulance with which Brendan Fraser brushes the blood off his trouser cuff)

    “Finian’s Rainbow” is underrate. I adore “One From the Heart” and “Rumble Fish”

    Because he was traumatized by Giancarlo’s death Francis doesn’t remember making “Gardens of Stone” at all. Think about that for a mo.

  7. Gardens of Stone FEELS numbed, sedated. You can sense the tragedy.

    If Tetro is preposterous the way Twixt is, this may be FCC’s new mode…

    Even though they rewrote the hell out of his script, John Milius carries the day in Apocalypse Now, a far-right fantasy that liberals mistake for an anti-war movie because they can’t believe the filmmakers could be on the side of Kurtz.

  8. I see that I gave “Youth without Youth” 4 out of 5 stars on Netflix. I don’t remember much about it, except for a moment of despair when I thought it was going to be one of those goddamn ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ deals, but my despair was unjustified. Probably.

  9. Sounds worth a shot, anyway. Even here he does lots of creative things.

  10. I just read the Wiki synopsis, which brought a lot of it back. I would watch it again, absolutely. Twixt, I don’t think I would. He sets up a lot of fun stuff and then proceeds to have no fun.

  11. kevin mummery Says:

    Coppola’s output seemed to diminish in quality shortly after he acquired his vineyard, or maybe that’s just my own perception. Saw “Tetro”, and it was…interesting. I probably wouldn’t have bothered but Maribel Verdu is in it, so there’s that.

  12. I think Coppola’s great and near-great works came before he started medication to control his bipolar disorder. The vineyard acquisition may have come at the same time. I’m glad he got help but it may have cost us a masterpiece here and there.

  13. I really wanted to like Twixt, but sadly found it a tonal catastrophe. The visual scheme of the dream/night scenes didn’t strike me so much as Bava as Robert Rodriguez doing Frank Miller. And the “real” scenes looked far too digital in their look for my taste. Meanwhile, the end is such a hackneyed copout … and throughout there’s a clash of what I can only take as intended humor with such committed emotions and non-scary scares … I’ll forgive Francis a lot, but, man.

    I would recommend Tetro more, certainly; it’s by no means perfect and I’m not sure it’s really all that good, but the performances strike a better balance and the black and white is legitimately beautiful. And you also get Francis playing out his family drama with one brother admiring another.

    It’s been forever since I’ve seen it, but I remember Tucker being rather delightfully rompish, though I’m not sure whether Coppola or Bridges was having more fun …

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